Toe the Line vs. Tow the Line

Toe the LineRecently I used the title’s idiom, and to be honest I don’t know if I’d ever used it before in writing; I’ve heard it said onk-times, but never had much use for it so far in written form.  Then came the question, is it “toe” or “tow”?  Actually the original phrase is nautical; but that could still be either spelling.  I did a bit of research, in both etymology dictionaries and a book of naval slang, online and in my library.  The consensus, I present here.

“Toe the line,”  according to Naval History & Heritage, comes from the practice of waterproofing between deck boards with a layer of oakum, pitch and tar, thus creating a striped deck; when the crew was ordered to fall in at quarters they would line up at their designated area of the deck, toes to the line to ensure a neat line for inspection.  Toeing the line was also used as a form of punishment for lighter misdemeanours aboard a ship, such as younger crew members talking at the wrong time; they were made to stand at the line for a specified amount of time to remind them to behave.  A logical leap later and we have our idiom, because the young lads were warned to “toe the line” – they were to mentally toe the line to avoid getting in trouble.

Tow the LineHowever, “Tow the line” could be seen as a malapropism, a mondegreen, or an eggcorn.  A malapropism (also called Dogberryism) is the substitution of an inappropriate word or expression in place of the correct and similarly-sounding word.  Example:  “Officer Dogberry said, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons” (apprehended two suspicious persons).  A mondegreen is an error arising from  understanding a spoken word or song text incorrectly.  Example:  “The ants are my friends, blowin’ in the wind” (the answer my friends) – Bob Dylan.  An eggcorn is an idiosyncratic (but semantically motivated) substitution of a word or phrase for a word or phrase that sound identical, or nearly so, at least in the dialect the speaker uses.  Example:  “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”.  Depending on your view of things, “tow the line could fall into any of those categories.  But it has so often been misused that it has begun to develop its own connotation independent of the original idiom:  While “toe the line” indicates a passive agreement or adherence to a particular regulation or ideology, “tow the line” implies more of an active participation in the enforcement or propagation of that “line” whether political, social, or business policy, as towing an object is not passive, but participative.


Filed under Articles, History, Mistranslations, Nuts & Bolts, Research

8 responses to “Toe the Line vs. Tow the Line

  1. connie white

    Of course, I would say that you would not “tow the line” unless you were towing a line to a specified place to pick up a specified object, or unless you would tow an object WITH a line. Toe the line should be the correct usage, as you so well stated.

  2. I agree, though as I said “tow the line” is morphing into an idiom of its own, so “correct” depends on which connotation is intended…

  3. Pingback: Pitch vs. Tar | History Undusted

  4. This is interesting, and two years later, but I understand “tow” to be more participatory as well, though for an historical reason. The tow-path that ran along the edges of rivers were for the express purpose of towing a boat upstream. Riverboats before the time of steam were towed upstream, often by slaves, in the south. A line was stretched from the boat to one or both sides of the river to a tow-path. Faster passage needed more than one tow-person.

  5. That’s interesting! Towline and towrope, as nouns, exist; but it would be interesting to know if that specific phrase was used in other parts of the English-speaking world for the same action – i.e. if it developed that meaning in the south with riverboats, or migrated there with settlers. Have you been able to find that etymological history in writing? I’d like to read from the source. As I said in the article, I did quite a bit of digging, but never came across this particular meaning… if I could verify it, it would be an interesting addition to the article! 🙂 Please do let me know!

  6. By the way, I liked your most recent post (“Pause and Rest”), but couldn’t “like” it. Have you considered migrating your blog to WordPress, so that Wordies can like and follow? Let me know if you do!

  7. Craig Morris

    I an old episode of Daniel Boone two men (one Daniel I think) decided to settle their differences with a fight. A line was drawn in the dirt, one man stepped up to it and said to the other, “Get up here and toe the line”. The first man to step back from the line lost the fight. I always imagine that scene when I hear the phrase “toe the line”.

  8. I wonder how many other idioms could be used to describe the scene you mention; “step up to the plate/ up to bat” comes to mind…

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